Effort to preserve Tin Pan Alley meets opposition from developer citing its racist past

MIDTOWN — It's a name that became to American songwriting what Hollywood became to American filmmaking. Tin Pan Alley is a commercial district here that produced thousands of songs, the most famous of which became staples of the Great American Songbook.

However, along with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home," and other early 20th Century standards, there were other songs, with overtly racist titles, including "N****r, N****r, Never Die," "All C**ns Look Alike to Me," "When A N****r Makes 100, 99 Goes on His Back."

That part of the legacy of Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street is at the center of a controversial developer's argument to demolish the five row house buildings that remain from Tin Pan Alley's creation more than a century ago, and replace them with a modern high rise.

The effort is being met with significant opposition from historic preservationists.

"Goodness knows who was running into each other in the hallways as they created what is now the American songbook," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council

The name Tin Pan Alley has a variety of origins, depending on which story one believes. Most have in common the tinny sound of upright pianos that filled the rooms in the row of five townhouses whose addresses are 47 - 55 West 28th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.

The row was part of a larger district of songwriting houses spanning from Park Avenue to the east, through Madison Square, to the border of the Flower District on Sixth Avenue to the west.

The row of buildings in question was the subject of a hearing before the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday. If the commission determines that the Tin Pan Alley buildings be given landmark status, it would severely restrict development of the property.

Its owner, Yair Levy, wants to construct a high rise on the property through his development trust. Levy has been permanently banned by New York State from buying and selling properties directly due to past legal issues.

His attorney, Ken Fisher, displayed dozens of pieces of racist Tin Pan Alley sheet music to PIX11 News in an interview. It was meant to bolster his point that when the Tin Pan Alley buildings in question were active in the 1890s to early 1910s, they didn't just produce titles like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "In the Good Old Summer Time."

Laid out on a conference room table in Fisher's office during the interview was sheet music for "I'd Rather Be a N****r Than a Poor White Man" and "Mammy's Kinky-Headed C**n."

"Every one of these buildings [produced] these kinds of songs," Fisher said. "Particularly because it was their business model."

Fisher commissioned a 39-page report by historian Andrew Alpern that not only mentions dozens of racially offensive songs created in Tin Pan Alley, but also notes that many songs associated with Tin Pan Alley were composed in songwriting houses that were part of the larger songwriting district, and not in the five specific buildings which the city is considering for landmark status.

By contrast, George Calderaro, the project director of the Save Tin Pan Alley Initiative, said that the racist songs numbered in the dozens among thousands of songs overall produced in Tin Pan Alley.

"These same songs were written by African Americans and published by the first African American publishing company, which was right here in one of these buildings," Calderaro said.

His argument, as well as the contrasting points of the developer, make up the two sides presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday morning. The commission will consider whether to preserve what's left of Tin Pan Alley, or let it be developed the way a lot of the neighborhood has been in recent years -- into high rise commercial buildings or hotels.

The commission's director of research said that both sides will be carefully considered.

"There is part of the history [of the buildings] that is difficult," said Kate Lemos McHale. "Designating landmarks allows us to learn from that history."

The commission is expected to have a vote on the preservation of 47 - 55 West 28th Street before the end of summer.

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